For iceskatingintnl.com By Alexandra Stevenson
The first order of business when the World Championships get started is Tuesday morningís Compulsory Dance. From the moment school figures were chucked out of international competition after the 1990 season, people have predicted a short life span for this section. But while it is true, early in their careers, ice dancers sigh in frustration at the many hours they must practice these exercises, any established performer will tell you they are very necessary building blocks for the sport.
"Figures and compulsory dances are NOT the same at all," said an appalled Courtney Jones, an International Skating Union Council member for the past seven years, who was the official ISU representative in the recent world junior championships in Sofia. "I do get upset when people speculate that compulsories will disappear. Many people enjoy dancing the compulsories. Yes, there is a certain rigidity with all the skaters doing the same steps, but they are done to music and itís a very social activity, nothing like the solitary figures were. And they are the absolute basis of the sport of ice dancing."
Jones, a tall, distinguished, carefully spoken Briton from London, won the world ice dance championship four times 1957-1960 with two different partners and, in 1963, devised two of the compulsories on the ISU schedule, the lovely Starlight Waltz which was a part of Junior international events this season, and the Silver Samba. He is also past President of the former National Skating Association of Great Britain and was awarded the extremely prestigious Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for his services to the sport in Britain (which entitles him to use the letters OBE after his name).
Jones, who is always beautifully attired and soft-spoken even when facing rambunctious grillings by uninformed press members, confirmed that, "organizers of large events and championships which are televisedwant the ISU to reduce the number of sections for ice dance from three to two, in keeping with the other figure skating disciplines of singles and pairs. But that does NOT mean compulsories will go out of Junior competition. No! Not at all! Compulsories are absolutely the backbone of the sport. They absolutely will stay in. The ISU is in the process of expanding Novice level international competition, and compulsories will obviously play a big part in those events.
"However, we are researching, very thoroughly, how to make changes to the senior format. It will be the most exciting development for the sport in half a century. We hope everyone concerned with the sport will do their utmost to provide input into the best way to achieve this result. I hesitate to say 100%, but a large proportion of those in the sport, competitors, coaches and officials, want to keep compulsories so we are looking for a way to combine the compulsory and original sections. One idea is that we set a rhythm, say the Paso Doble. The couple, using their own music, would do a sequence with the steps of the compulsory and then go into their own variation. It is wonderful that the number of competitors in the sport is increasing but it is a little true that the set music for a compulsory can get a bit monotonous when the competitive field is so large."
Thirty couples from 22 countries are entered for these world championships. Thirty-three couples competed in the world junior championships in February. The number of pieces of music approved by the ISU has increased and been varied from time to time. Also new compulsories, such as the Finnstep which was used for international competition for the first time this season, have been introduced in recent years. But the necessary controls have meant that a long compulsory dance competition can become increasingly boring for uninitiated spectators.
Jones revealed that changes may be made in the judging. "You know ice dance was never meant to be judged by the same criteria as singles and pairs. But when the IJS system was adopted, it wasnít then possible to have different programs in the computer. That is no longer the case. We can make significant differences. Yes, there still will be component marks but not for the same categories. And many other changes are being discussed."
He also said the ISU was arranging a trial event to be held in Milan on May 15th & 16th with couples from North America and Europe taking part. Competitors and coaches are being encouraged to adopt a hands-on participation role in this meeting. They want skaters to present, in a mini-competition format, how such combos could work. Obviously, this involves a lot of work at a time when many competitors are in their "down" time, either focusing on making up missed schooling, taking part in paid exhibitions or just refreshing themselves with a vacation.
"But it is absolutely essential," Jones stresses, "that everyone share their ideas. This is a unique opportunity to have a hand in the decision-making process. Itís wonderful that the skaters themselves can have significant input in their futures. Itís a ground-breaking process."
1980 Olympic champion Gennadi Karponosov is one of the most staunch supporters of compulsory dances. He, and his wife and partner, Natalia Linichuk, have taught in the United States for 1Ĺ decades. They currently coach several of the top ice dance couples including the US Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto and the Russian 2008 European champions, Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin in Aston, PA. Karponosov is adamant that compulsories are absolutely essential to the sport. "Even the European Waltz (which has only four steps) is important," he said. "Its few steps are the basis for teaching ice dance, the flow over the ice, the correct body positions, the timing to the music, conveying the feeling of the music. It is one of the most difficult compulsories to do well because it is so simple. It teaches the very basics of glide and control. And compulsories like the Tango Romantica are not so boring to watch." The Tango Romantica is one of the most complicated compulsories. It was invented in 1974 by the Russian couple who, in 1976, became the first ever Olympic ice dance gold medalists, Ludmila Pakhomova & Alexander Gorshkov. But similar efforts to produce a compulsory from Jayne Torvill & Christopher Deanís 6.0-winning Rumba DíAmour, with which they won the original section of the 1994 Olympic Games after 10 years absence from eligible competition, ran into problems.
In the meantime, itís back to the Paso Doble, which was drawn out of two possibilities. The other was the Viennese Waltz. Both were created in London in England in the 1930s, when ice dancing was a social recreation of moneyed, upper class adults. The British Association decided to hold competitions to devise new compulsories to expand the repertoire of ice dancing which then consisted of only a handful of options, including the European Waltz (and its variation, the American Waltz), the Kilian (a March) and the ten and fourteen step. The Viennese Waltz was created by Eva Keats and Eric van der Weyden at the Streatham rink in 1934. After inventing the Argentine Tango and the Quickstep, Daphne Wallis & Reg Wilkie devised the Paso Doble at the round Westminster Club rink in 1938. The Westminster was closed shortly afterwards at the beginning of World War II and never reopened, but the Streatham rink totters on.
The creators of these dances did not have great expectations for their inventions. Indicative of the social nature of ice dancing at that era was the fact that, according to Bob Ogilvie, the ice at the Westminster rink had an outlet that extended right up to the bar! Liquid refreshments were just a chasse away. British and world ice dance championships had yet to be instigated.
The first international competition in ice dance was held in 1950 in conjunction with the Mens, Ladies and Pairs world championships which took place at the Wembley Arena in north London. Some believe that if an American couple had not entered, and, astonishingly, won, the event would not have been repeated. However, British feathers were ruffled that "foreigners" beat them at their own game. They campaigned successfully for a rematch. Britons won that event and in 1952, the official designation of "world" ice dance championship was added to what has became an annual competition. Nine couples from six countries, Britain, the US, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland competed. Britons claimed gold and silver. The first non-British world ice dance champions were the Czech brother-and-sister, Eva & Pavel Roman, more than a decade later in 1962 when the event was held in their capital, Prague.
When asked about his competitive days, Jones, who is approaching the ISU retirement age but hopes to continue his interest in the sport in other ways after his retirement from the ISU Council, laughs. "Thank goodness thereís no film of my performances around. How embarrassing that would be! We did practice, of course. And we thought we did pretty well but we were nothing compared to todayís skaters. For one thing, we went at a slower speed compared with present day dancers. We had equally good technique but we didnít have their power." Jonesí first partner, the blonde June Markham stopped competing in 1958 so he groomed an alternate, a vivacious brunette who had never competed in ice dance. Under Jonesí tutelage, Doreen Denny, who later moved to the United States and married an American, morphed into a world champion in less than a year. Jones agrees, "That wouldnít be possible now. I was in the Air Force and our practice time was extremely limited. Actually, I owe a great debt to Reg Wilkie (who had become an official of the NSA). He managed to pull some government strings to get me stationed in the north of England so I could practice with June. That would not have been possible unless he had intervened. I remember those competitions with great joy. My last world championship was in Vancouver in 1960. Doreen and I did continue and won the European title in 1961 but, of course, worlds was cancelled that year because of the great tragedy (of the plane crash which killed the entire US team on its way to worlds)."
If you had told Wilkie, who died in 1963, that the 28 steps he devised for the Paso Doble (which are then repeated), would live on through the next century and that his invention would be performed in the movie capital of the world by a fleet of competitors, he undoubtedly would not have believed you. Unlike authors, there was never a question of Wilkie and his partner being paid "royalties" for their work. They certainly did not foresee the huge variety of countries and, for them, staggering number of todayís competitors, all spending so many hours and so much effort polishing the steps for what they believed would be a "mere" pleasant pastime. And, according to Courtney Jones, his inventions will continue to live on for many years.
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